Thursday, April 9, 2009

No political space outside the CPI(M)-TMC binary

A large majority of the people of Singur in no way condones the Left Front government’s recent policies of industrialisation, development and land acquisition yet they are wary of the new TMC-led panchayat in Singur.

For instance, some villagers in Dobandi, an SC village of landless farm labourers (and owing to existing caste discriminations and economic conditions this village has been the hardest hit ever since the land was taken away for the Tata project), received the rare subsidy from the government for making brick houses under the Indira Abasan Yojana (Indira Housing Scheme). Yet, this sum of about Rs. 35,000 came with several riders. Madhabi, a resident of Dobandi, says “First, we did not get this money as such. We had to go to Bulda’s shop in Beraberi where a panchayat member made us buy the construction materials.” The second rider, Madhabi says is that “the TMC-led panchayat members asked for a bribe of Rs 1,500 from each family that received this grant as it is through the panchayat that the money reached these people. The panchayat members are demanding extra money from the electorate for doing their duty. However, none of us finally paid this bribe. As a result, the panchayat members have stopped speaking to us now.” Another resident of Dobandi who had also received this grant under this housing scheme denied when we asked him about the demand for bribe but when Madhabi spoke up and said that the panchayat members had asked everyone who received the grant, for a bribe, this man also admitted to being asked for a bribe, which he didn’t pay, like the other villagers. Therefore, the electorate is being forced to shell out extra money in buying bricks and cement from a certain specified supplier who is taking full advantage of the situation by selling goods at an inflated rate. The panchayat, it seems, is getting a commission from this hardware supplier for getting an unofficial government deal.

When it comes to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the situation remains the same as before. The previous CPI(M) panchayat was abysmal in its record. The scheme assures every adult member of any rural household willing to do unskilled manual work one hundred days of employment in every financial year at the statutory minimum wage. However, under the CPI(M) panchayat, most villagers in Khasherbheri (another village in Singur) did not even have the NREGS job cards required to submit an application for work. When we asked villagers in Khasherberi in May 2008, one of them said “I had gone to the panchayat and submitted my application form. But I haven’t got my card as yet. When on repeatedly asking the panahcyat members, I realised I wasn’t going to get it, I asked them to return the application form so I could take it to the BDO and complain about it. But they did not return the form either.” One of the villages where most people had job cards was Dobandi. However, the people got their job cards mostly due to the efforts of Anuradha Talwar and Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, an NGO rather than due to the efforts of the local panchayat members. “Didi (referring to Anuradha Talwar) helped us make our job cards. No one from the panchayat took any initiative,” confirmed Kali, a resident of Dobandi. The CPI(M) panchayat made little effort to publicise the scheme. However, on an average no one had received paid work for more than seven days in 2008. Demand for hundred days of work from the authorities had been met with the dodge that there are no work openings available. While most people had not received any work at all, those who had told yet another story – that in many cases, the amount of work they were expected to do in a day was not such that was normally humanly possible and that that inability has often translated, come pay time, to a claim that the work has not been done to requirement, and therefore is undeserving of pay and also that the worker is unskilled and hence cannot be given any further work.

Most people in Singur had wholeheartedly thrown themselves behind the TMC in the panchayat elections of 2008. The victory was seen as their victory against the oppressions of the CPI(M) government. Yet, post-elections, little changed. Even in July 2008, Sukumar Pakira, elected TMC member of the Beraberi panchayat in Singur told members of the Citizens’ Initiative “Do not incite the people about the NREGS. The NREGS is the duty of the panchayat. The panchayat is looking into this. We shall soon start work under the NREGS. Our panchayat members have not yet got down to actual business. We shall start soon.” However, even in January 2009, there was little work under the NREGS scheme being initiated by the new TMC panchayat. The latest from Dobandi, informs local resident Kali, is that “people had worked for 12 days under the NREGS in January 2009. Yet the panchayat has paid some people for 5 days, some for 7 days, the rest of the money is gone. The reason the panchayat is giving is that it was due to errors we made while filling in the job application forms and we had entered wrong bank account numbers. But what I can’t figure out is that if we had indeed provided the wrong bank account numbers, why would we be paid at all and if we are being paid, then why only for a fraction of the actual number of days that we had worked.” Neither could we at the Citizens’ Initiative figure out! Kali had more beans to spill. “They were supposed to paid us Rs. 82 per day but they have only paid us Rs. 76 per day. We wonder what happened to the other Rs. 6 per person per day.”

Villagers in Khasherbheri had finally got around to getting NREGS cards made and they had received about 18 days of work on an average under the NREGS in February 2009. They have been paid Rs.80 out of the Rs 82 per day that they are supposed to receive.

Talk turns from economic matter to the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. What do you think will happen, we ask some of the villagers in Dobandi. Will this failure to perform on the part of the TMC swing votes once again towards the CPI(M)? “No way,” says one of the residents of Dobandi, “CPI(M) did a cardinal mistake. We can never again vote for the CPI(M) but we plan to boycott the elections this time round and not vote for the TMC either.” Kali, the enigmatic youth, is more skeptical. “Just before the elections, the TMC panchayat members will make some token gestures and announce sops and everyone will again vote for the TMC,” he taunts the first speaker. “You wait and watch. We won’t be fooled that easily,” replies the first speaker gleefully.

The speaker lives in a group of concrete houses which have been built just outside one section of the boundary wall of the factory. Contrary to the claims of Ravi Kant, MD of Tata Motors, who had said that no homesteads were acquired for the Tata plant, several people had indeed been uprooted from their homes. They were then bundled up in tiny concrete houses (with abysmal living conditions such as lack of even a functioning tube well, no toilets to speak of and the monsoons submerging their houses almost up to their knees). These people were no longer being taken care of by the panchayat under which they used to belong before they had been uprooted. Now, even though they fall within the Beraberi panchayat, the Beraberi panchayat (both pre and post panchayat elections, i.e. both CPI(M) and TMC panchayats) have refused to recognise them though they fall within their jurisdiction.

Now with the Congress and the TMC joining hands, the old binary of CPI(M) and TMC is further re-inforced. The people have little choice between Scylla and Charybdis, it seems.

Meanwhile, the 997 acres cordoned off for the Tata factory hang precariously in the balance. Whereas some residents of nearby households have been taking away some of the bricks which used to line the boundary wall running around the 997 acres, the people of Dobandi were never landowners anyway, they only used to work on that land that is now no longer anyone’s, it seems. The landowners of Khasherbheri though have never really given up hope. It is perhaps difficult to break down people’s convictions and their sense of propriety which have been built not only over years but over generations. “We are still hoping that we will get the land back,” a resident of Khasherbheri had told us in September 2008. If the lands are to be returned and due compensation paid for all the days of work lost and also the time required for the land to regain fertility (as most of the local farmers have been demanding), then such steps must be taken soon before the local farmers who were dependent on the land literally die out.

(Names have been changed so as to protect identity).

Citizens’ Initiative
March 2009